Incident Date: August 17, 1981
Jurisdiction: Eighteenth Circuit
Charge: First-Degree Felony Murder
Conviction: First-Degree Felony Murder
Year of Conviction: 1981
Exoneration Date: December 10, 2008
Sentence Served: 27 Years
Real perpetrator found? Yes
Contributing Causes: Eyewitness Misidentification,
Informant/Snitch, Unreliable/Limited Science,
Perjured Witness Testimony, Manufactured Evidence
On November 18, 2008, William Dillon was freed from prison after 27 years when postconviction DNA testing demonstrated his actual innocence of a 1981 murder. At the time of his release, Dillon’s 27 years was the longest time served by any of the DNA exonerees nationwide. He is the third man to be exonerated in Brevard County in recent years.
On the morning of August 17, 1981, James Dvorak was found murdered at Canova Beach. He had been brutally beaten to death and left in a wooded area, an apparent homosexual meeting place near the beach.
Dillon became a suspect because several days after the murder while hanging out at Canova Beach, he was approached by police who were questioning people about the crime. Dillon had read about the murder in the newspaper and had seen the yellow police tape in a wooded area near the beach. He told police that he assumed the taped area was where the crime occurred. Perhaps because they had no other suspects, police inferred from this that Dillon had further information about the crime and subsequently brought him in for questioning. After several days and multiple interrogations, police arrested Dillon.
The State’s case was based largely on the testimony of four key witnesses—an admitted perjurer, a fraudulent dog scent expert, a snitch whose charges were dropped in return for his testimony, and a half-blind eyewitness—as well as a t-shirt worn by the killer, which now reveals that Dillon was not the murderer.
(1) Donna Parrish: Parrish, Dillon’s sometime sexual partner, was the only witness to testify that she saw Dillon at the crime scene. However, she did not witness the murder itself. She gave inconsistent statements to police throughout the investigation and gave implausible, confused testimony at trial, which seemed to suggest that she had stumbled upon the already-dead body independent of Dillon, told no one, and later followed him back to the body. She also claimed that on the night in question, Dillon was wearing the yellow t-shirt.
Less than a month after the trial, Parrish recanted her trial testimony in its entirety, under oath, stating that she had been pressured by the Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office and threatened with 25 years in prison. In particular, she said that she had lied about following Dillon to the body and had lied when she said that he had worn or even owned the yellow t-shirt. In fact, she said that she and Dillon had spent the night in question at a motel room with acquaintances, and her entire trial testimony regarding their whereabouts was a fabrication. Furthermore, Florida Today newspaper reported that, during the investigation, Parrish and the lead investigator, Sgt. Charles Slaughter, had a sexual liaison. Slaughter was suspended and eventually resigned as a result.
(2) John Preston: Preston, a purported expert in scent tracking hired by the State, testified that his dog, Harass II, had, prior to trial, linked Dillon to the crime scene and the yellow t-shirt. Preston’s claims have been thoroughly discredited by experts in the field of scent tracking, media reports (including an expose on the tv show 20/20), multiple state supreme courts (including the Arizona Supreme Court, which called him a “charlatan”), police training manuals, and law review articles. And in 1984, when he was a capital defense attorney, current Brevard County State Attorney Norman Wolfinger, said, “I wouldn’t want my life to depend on what [Preston’s] dog says.”
(3) Roger Dale Chapman: Chapman’s testimony was suspect from the outset. He said that Dillon confessed to the murder and reenacted it in the middle of the jail dining hall. Despite the presence of other inmates, however, there were no other witnesses to this alleged confession. Furthermore, Chapman’s report of the confession included numerous details that were at odds with the facts of the case. For example, Chapman said that Dillon had told him that the crime occurred on a beach miles away from the beach where it actually occurred, Canova Beach.
After Chapman agreed to testify against Dillon, the State dropped pending charges against him for the rape of a sixteen-year-old girl.
(4) John Parker: Parker testified that on the night of the murder, he picked up a sweaty, bloody man hitchhiking near the scene of the crime and the two had oral sex. The man, who called himself “Jim,” left behind a bloody yellow t-shirt that Parker later turned over to police. At trial, Parker identified that man as Dillon.
There has always been ample reason to doubt Parker’s identification. He was legally blind in one eye and his description of the assailant differed markedly from Dillon’s actual characteristics. Furthermore, at trial, Parker conceded that he wasn’t sure that Dillon was, in fact, the man he picked up.
(5) The Yellow T-shirt: At trial, the State’s theory was clear: the killer wore the yellow t-shirt during the crime and later left it in Parker’s truck. The State referenced the t-shirt dozens of times throughout trial. By repeatedly linking the t-shirt to the crime scene and Dillon to the t-shirt, the State was able to link Dillon to the crime scene. For example, Parker testified that he picked up the hitchhiker with the t-shirt near the scene of the crime and Parrish testified that Dillon was wearing the t-shirt on the evening of the murder. In addition, through a convoluted series of scent lineups and scent detections, Preston’s dog was able to link Dillon to the t-shirt and to the crime scene.
DNA evidence that demonstrates Dillon’s innocence came as a result of a 2007 motion filed by Dillon’s attorneys, Mike Pirolo and the Innocence Project of Florida. DNA testing revealed that DNA from sweat on the bloody yellow t-shirt (the State’s key piece of evidence at trial) did not come from Dillon; it came from person(s) unknown. This confirmed what Dillon had said all along — that someone other than Dillon committed the murder.
On November 14, 2008, Dillon’s conviction was vacated. He was released on November 18, 2008, when the court granted him bond and he walked out of the Brevard County Jail with his family and his legal team. The State declined to re-try Dillon and filed a Nolle Prosequi with the court on December 10, 2008. Dillon spent more than 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.